Philosophical pessimism

Philosophical pessimism is an anti-optimistic ethic or worldview. This form of pessimism is not an emotional disposition as the term commonly connotes. Instead, it is a philosophy or worldview that directly challenges the notion of progress and what may be considered the faith-based claims of optimism.

The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

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  • We laugh, but inept is our laughter,
    We should weep, and weep sore,
    Who are shattered like glass and thereafter
    Remolded no more.
  • Consider the capacity of the human body for pleasure. Sometimes, it is pleasant to eat, to drink, to see, to touch, to smell, to hear, to make love. The mouth. The eyes. The fingertips. The nose. The ears. The genitals. Our voluptific faculties (if you will forgive me the coinage) are not exclusively concentrated in these places, but it is undeniable that they are concentrated here. The whole body is susceptible to pleasure, but in places there are wells from which it may be drawn up in greater quantity. But not inexhaustibly. How long is it possible to know pleasure? Rich Romans ate to satiety, and then purged their overburdened bellies and ate again. But they could not eat for ever. A rose is sweet, but the nose becomes habituated to its scent. And what of the most intense pleasures, the personality-annihilating ecstasies of sex? (...) Even if I were a woman, and could string orgasm on orgasm like beads upon a necklace, in time I should sicken of it. Yet consider. Consider pain. Give me a cubic centimetre of your flesh and I could give you pain that would swallow you as the ocean swallows a grain of salt. And you would always be ripe for it, from before the time of your birth to the moment of your death. We are always in season for the embrace of pain. To experience pain requires no intelligence, no maturity, no wisdom, no slow working of the hormones in the moist midnight of our innards. We are always ripe for it. All life is ripe for it. Always. (...) Consider the ways in which we may gain pleasure. Consider. Consider the ways in which we may be given pain. The one is to the other as the moon is to the sun.
    • Jesús Ignacio Aldapuerta, The Eyes: Emetic Fables from the Andalusian de Sade (1996)


  • The longer I live, the more I feel that the simplest formula for the constancy of my fate is: on a lost watch.
    • Julius Bahnsen, quoted by Harry Slochower in "Julius Bahnsen, Philosopher of Heroic Despair, 1830-1881" (1932), The Philosophical Review, 41(4), p. 372
  • And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept.
  • For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.
  • who may tell the tale
    of the old man?
    weigh absence in a scale?
    mete want with a span?
    the sum assess
    of the world's woes?
    in words enclose?
  • dead calm, then a murmur, a name, a murmured name, in doubt, in fear, in love, in fear, in doubt, wind of winter in the black boughs, cold calm sea whitening whispering to the shore, stealing, hastening, swelling, passing, dying, from naught come, to naught gone
  • They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.
    • Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953)
    • Description: The words of the character Pozzo.
  • Birth was the death of him.
  • If there is no God to redeem suffering, and if there is no God to ensure that good triumphs over evil, the problem of existence poses itself anew. Is life really worth living if it contains more suffering than happiness, more evil than good, and if it promises no reward or redemption in some life to come?
  • Above all, we cannot expect the state to make people happy. Even if it effectively protects the rights of everyone, it is still possible for them to be miserable. There are four fundamental evils of human life that are constant and that cannot be eradicated by political means: birth, sickness, age and death. Mainländer’s pessimism was immune to political change or reform, because no state, even a socialist one that cares for all human needs, could make life worth living.
  • Why does the Raven cry aloud and no eye pities her?
    Why fall the Sparrow & the Robin in the foodless winter?
    Faint! shivering they sit on leafless bush, or frozen stone
    Wearied with seeking food across the snowy waste; the little
    Heart, cold; and the little tongue consum'd, that once in thoughtless joy
    Gave songs of gratitude to waving corn fields round their nest.
    Why howl the Lion & the Wolf? why do they roam abroad?
    Deluded by summers heat they sport in enormous love
    And cast their young out to the hungry wilds & sandy desarts
  • Every night and every morn
    Some to misery are born;
    Every morn and every night
    Some are born to sweet delight;
    Some are born to sweet delight,
    Some are born to endless night.
  • Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.
  • We saw that there really was no way to overcome the real dilemma of existence, the one of the mortal animal who at the same time is conscious of his mortality. A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world, broadening and sharpening his appetite, learning to bear the disappointments of life, becoming mature, seasoned—finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity and nobility and transcending the animal condition; no longer driven, no longer a complete reflex, not stamped out of any mold. And then the real tragedy, as André Malraux wrote in The Human Condition: that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying. This painful paradox is not lost on the person himself—least of all himself. He feels agonizingly unique, and yet he knows that this doesn’t make any difference as far as ultimates are concerned. He has to go the way of the grasshopper, even though it takes longer.
  • In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We don’t understand it simply because we don’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons.
  • What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types—biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one's own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer-bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out—not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in "natural" accidents of all types: an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the U.S. alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism's comfort and expansiveness.
  • Beyond a given point man is not helped by more "knowing", but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way.
  • [M]odern man is the victim of his own disillusionment; he has been disinherited by his own analytic strength. The characteristic of the modern mind is the banishment of mystery, of naive belief, of simple-minded hope. We put the accent on the visible, the clear, the cause-and-effect relation, the logical—always the logical. We know the difference between dreams and reality, between facts and fictions, between symbols and bodies. But right away we can see that these characteristics of the modern mind are exactly those of neurosis. What typifies the neurotic is that he “knows” his situation vis-à-vis reality. He has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway him, to give him hope or trust. He is a miserable animal whose body decays, who will die, who will pass into dust and oblivion, disappear forever not only in this world but in all the possible dimensions of the universe, whose life serves no conceivable purpose, who may as well not have been born, and so on and so forth. He knows Truth and Reality, the motives of the entire universe.
  • It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a sky-scraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as “religious” as any other, this is what he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.
  • The (nonhuman) animal predicament is particularly revealing. Confronted with the awful spectacle of billions of animals being eaten, often alive, by predators, humans typically do not attempt to propose any cosmic meaning to those lives. Indeed, the usual monotheistic response is to say that the (or at least one) purpose of animals is to be eaten by others higher up the food chain. It is hard to reconcile that with the existence of a purportedly benevolent God, who surely could have created a world in which billions did not have to die each day to keep others alive.
  • Moreover, it is thought that there is something absurd about the earnestness of our pursuits. We take ourselves very seriously, but when we step back, we wonder what it is all about. The step back need not be all the way to the cosmos. One does not need much distance to see that there seems something futile about our endless strivings, which are not altogether different from a hamster on its wheel. Much of our lives are filled with recurring mundane activities, the purpose of which is to keep the whole cycle going: working, shopping, cooking, feeding, abluting, sleeping, laundering, dishwashing, bill-paying, and various engagements with ever-expanding bureaucracies. Even if these mundane activities are thought to serve other goals, the attainment of those goals only yields further goals to be pursued. There is plenty of scope for questioning the significance of even the broader goals of one’s life. This (personal) cycle continues until one dies, but the treadmill is intergenerational because people tend to reproduce, thereby creating new mill-treaders. This has continued for generations and will continue until humanity eventually goes the way of all species—extinction. It seems like a long, repetitive journey to nowhere.
  • The prospect of one’s own death, perhaps highlighted by a diagnosis of a dangerous or terminal condition, tends to focus the mind. But the deaths of others—relatives, friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even strangers—can also get a person thinking. Those deaths need not be recent. For example, one might be wandering around an old graveyard. On the tombstones are inscribed some details about the deceased—the dates they were born and died, and perhaps references to spouses, siblings, or children and grandchildren who mourned their loss. Those mourners are themselves now long dead. One thinks about the lives of those families—the beliefs and values, loves and losses, hopes and fears, strivings and failures—and one is struck that nothing of that remains. All has come to naught. One’s thoughts then turn to the present and one recognizes that in time, all those currently living—including oneself —will have gone the way of those now interred. Someday, somebody might stand at one’s grave and wonder about the person represented by the name on the tombstone, and might reflect on the fact that everything that person—you or I— once cared about has come to nothing. It is far more likely, however, that nobody will spare one even that brief thought after all those who knew one have also died.
  • We are ephemeral beings on a tiny planet in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe (or perhaps the multiverse)—a cosmos that is coldly indifferent to the insignificant specks that we are. It is indifferent to our fortunes and misfortunes, to injustice, to our hopes, fears, values, and concerns. The forces of nature and the cosmos are blind.
  • Our lives contain so much more bad than good in part because of a series of empirical differences between bad things and good things. For example, the most intense pleasures are short-lived, whereas the worst pains can be much more enduring. Orgasms, for example, pass quickly. Gastronomic pleasures last a bit longer, but even if the pleasure of good food is protracted, it lasts no more than a few hours. Severe pains can endure for days, months, and years. Indeed, pleasures in general—not just the most sublime of them—tend to be shorter-lived than pains. Chronic pain is rampant, but there is no such thing as chronic pleasure. There are people who have an enduring sense of contentment or satisfaction, but that is not the same as chronic pleasure. Moreover, discontent and dissatisfaction can be as enduring as contentment and satisfaction; this means that the positive states are not advantaged in this realm. Indeed, the positive states are less stable because it is much easier for things to go wrong than to go right. The worst pains are also worse than the best pleasures are good. Those who deny this should consider whether they would accept an hour of the most delightful pleasures in exchange for an hour of the worst tortures. Arthur Schopenhauer makes a similar point when he asks us to “compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.” The animal being eaten suffers and loses vastly more than the animal that is eating gains from this one meal. Consider too the temporal dimensions of injury or illness and recovery. One can be injured in seconds: One is hit by a bullet or projectile, or is knocked over or falls, or suffers a stroke or heart attack. In these and other ways, one can instantly lose one’s sight or hearing or the use of a limb or years of learning. The path to recovery is slow. In many cases, full recovery is never attained. Injury comes in an instant, but the resultant suffering can last a lifetime. Even lesser injuries and illnesses are typically incurred much more quickly than one recovers from them. For example, the common cold strikes quickly and is defeated much more slowly by one’s immune system. The symptoms manifest with increasing intensity within hours, but they take at least days, if not weeks, to disappear entirely.
  • Things are also stacked against us in the fulfillment of our desires and the satisfaction of our preferences. Many of our desires are never fulfilled. There are thus more unfulfilled than fulfilled desires. Even when desires are fulfilled, they are not fulfilled immediately. Thus, there is a period during which those desires remain unfulfilled. Sometimes, that is a relatively short period (such as between thirst and, in ordinary circumstances, its quenching), but in the case of more ambitious desires, they can take months, years, or decades to fulfill. Some desires that are fulfilled prove less satisfying than we had imagined. One wants a specific job or to marry a particular person, but upon attaining one’s goal, one learns that the job is less interesting or the spouse is more irritating than one thought. Even when fulfilled desires are everything that they were expected to be, the satisfaction is typically transitory, as the fulfilled desires yield to new desires. Sometimes, the new desires are more of the same. For example, one eats to satiety but then hunger gradually sets in again and one desires more food. The “treadmill of desires” works in another way too. When one can regularly satisfy one’s lower-level desires, a new and more demanding level of desires emerges. Thus, those who cannot provide for their own basic needs spend their time striving to fulfill these. Those who can satisfy the recurring basic needs develop what Abraham Maslow calls a “higher discontent” that they seek to satisfy. When that level of desires can be satisfied, the aspirations shift to a yet higher level. Life is thus a constant state of striving. There are sometimes reprieves, but the striving ends only with the end of life. Moreover, as should be obvious, the striving is to ward off bad things and attain good things. Indeed, some of the good things amount merely to the temporary relief from the bad things. For example, one satisfies one’s hunger or quenches one’s thirst. Notice too that while the bad things come without any effort, one has to strive to ward them off and attain the good things. Ignorance, for example, is effortless, but knowledge usually requires hard work.
  • Even the extent to which our desires and goals are fulfilled creates a misleadingly optimistic impression of how well our lives are going. This is because there is actually a form of self “censorship” in the formulation of our desires and goals. While many of them are never fulfilled, there are many more potential desires and goals that we do not even formulate because we know that they are unattainable. For example, we know that we cannot live for a few hundred years and that we cannot gain expertise in all the subjects in which we are interested. Thus, we set goals that are less unrealistic (even if many of them are nonetheless somewhat optimistic). Thus, one hopes to live a life that is, by human standards, a long life, and we hope to gain expertise in some, perhaps very focused, area. What this means is that, even if all our desires and goals were fulfilled, our lives are not going as well as they would be going if the formulation of our desires had not been artificially restricted.
  • Human life would be vastly better if pain were fleeting and pleasure protracted; if the pleasures were much better than the pains were bad; if it were really difficult to be injured or get sick; if recovery were swift when injury or illness did befall us; and if our desires were fulfilled instantly and if they did not give way to new desires. Human life would also be immensely better if we lived for many thousands of years in good health and if we were much wiser, cleverer, and morally better than we are.
  • It is also suggested that the bad things in life are necessary in order to appreciate the good things, or at least to appreciate them fully. On this view, we can only enjoy pleasures (as much as we do) because we also experience pain. Similarly, our achievements are more satisfying if we have to work hard to attain them, and fulfilled desires mean more to us because we know that desires are not always fulfilled. There are many problems with this sort of argument. First, these sorts of claims are not always true. There is much pain that serves no useful purpose. There is no value in labor pains or in pain resulting from terminal diseases, for example. While the pain associated with kidney stones might now lead somebody to seek medical help, for most of human history, such pain served no purpose, as there was absolutely nothing anybody could do about kidney stones. Moreover, there are at least some pleasures we can enjoy without having to experience pain. Pleasant tastes, for example, do not require any experience of pain or unpleasantness. Similarly, many achievements can be satisfying even if they involve less or no striving. There may be a special satisfaction in the ease of attainment. There may be some individual variation. Perhaps some people are more capable of enjoying pleasure without having to experience pain and more capable of taking satisfaction in achievements that come with ease. Second, insofar as the good things in life do require a contrast in order to be fully appreciated, it is not clear that this appreciation requires as much bad as there is. We do not, for example, require millions of people suffering from chronic pain, infectious diseases, advancing paralysis, and tumors in order to appreciate the good things in life. We could enjoy our achievements without having to work quite so hard to attain them.
  • Finally, and perhaps most important, to the extent that the bad things in life really are necessary, our lives are worse than they would be if the bad things were not necessary. There are both real and conceivable beings in which nociceptive (that is, specialized neural) pathways detect and transmit noxious stimuli, resulting in avoidance without being mediated by pain. This is true of plants and simple animal organisms, and it is also true of the reflex arc in more complex animals, such as humans. We can also imagine beings much more rational than humans, in which nociception and aversive behavior were mediated by a rational faculty rather than a capacity to feel pain. In such beings, a noxious stimulus would be received but not felt (or at least not in the way pain is), and the rational faculty would, as reliably as pain, induce the being to withdraw. It would be much better to be that sort of being than to be our sort of being. It would similarly be better to be the sort of being who can appreciate the good things in life without having to experience bad things or without having to work really hard to attain the good things. Lives in which there is “no gain without pain” are much worse than lives in which there could be “the same gain without pain.”


  • Our "love for life" is always, in some way, unrequited love. (...) Life does not care about us, it does not even know of our whereabouts. Contrary to what is said, it gives nothing for free, everything we manage to obtain is snatched away from us. Life does not need us. We chase after it, we humiliate ourselves, we beg, we accept everything it makes us go through, the greatest sufferings. Many are capable of the worst moral acts just to preserve it a bit more. (...) To those who ask, "But, do you not love life?" we should answer, in a poetic way: "Of course I love life; I always did. I always wanted to live, but it is life that does not let me live, that limits me, that hurts me, that makes me ill and destroys me. It is not me who does not want to live, because life is everything I always wanted. I wanted to build and life demolished everything I built; I wanted to love and life killed everything I loved. Do not say that I do not love life; it is life that does not love me, that does not love anybody."
    • Julio Cabrera, Mal-Estar e Moralidade: Situação Humana, Ética e Procriação Responsável, 2018, pp. 350-351
  • To get up in the morning, wash and then wait for some unforeseen variety of dread or depression. I would give the whole universe and all of Shakespeare for a grain of ataraxy.
  • The only thing the young should be taught is that there is virtually nothing to be hoped for from life. One dreams of a Catalogue of Disappointments which would include all the disillusionments reserved for each and every one of us, to be posted in the schools.
  • Better to be an animal than a man, an insect than an animal, a plant than an insect, and so on. Salvation? Whatever diminishes the kingdom of consciousness and compromises its supremacy.
  • I do not struggle against the world, I struggle against a greater force, against my weariness of the world.
  • Then what is Life?—When stripp'd of its disguise,
    A thing to be desir'd it cannot be;
    Since every thing that meets our foolish eyes
    Gives proof sufficient of its vanity.
  • Life knows us not and we do not know life,—we don't know even our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore: thoughts vanish: words, once pronounced, die: and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow,—only the string of my platitude seems to have no end. As our peasants say: "Pray brother, forgive me for the love of God." And we don't know what forgiveness is, nor what love, nor where God is.
  • Life is not worth its cost in pain. If we consider happiness as the goal of human existence, we will have to admit that we are definitely headed for failure. It would be much easier to defend the idea that suffering is the real goal, because we have many more sources of pain than pleasure. On a relative scale, our sensitivity to pain is several times greater than our sensitivity to pleasure. There are many more ways to be unhappy than the other way around. Our greatest pains are always more intense and lasting than our greatest joys. Finally, we do not need to cultivate our intellect, reflect on the world or make any effort in order to experience suffering: it is available at any time. To suffer, one merely has to live. Pain is like the essential element in which we are immersed, and happiness being only the moments when we manage to reach the surface and fill our lungs with air, only to be once again swallowed by the depths. This may sound unpleasant, but if we were to make a decisive bet with eternal happiness on the line, we would certainly place our trust in the ultimate victory of pain over pleasure. Faced with a bet of such importance, it is certain that we would quickly recover our lucidity and reconsider our silly opinions almost instantly about the dreams of personal happiness that we cultivate on a daily basis.
  • Our situation is not so different from that of a donkey with a carrot hanging in front of it. Our carrot is called happiness. When pursuing it, we chase after something we will never obtain. We have the impression that we are born to be happy, but this is only because we are tied to the internal logic of our biological nature. The condition of being alive imposes pleasure and suffering as the supreme points of reference. However, pleasure is only a psychological mechanism designed to influence our behavior, not a reality to which we are heading. This will become clear if we consider the fact that, when we reach the satisfaction of some desire, we have only a few moments of pleasure as a reward and, afterwards, new needs begin to torment us and make us restless. It will not be long before we take action again, in a cycle of dissatisfaction that will only end with the death of the individual or with the acquisition of a grain of good sense.
  • If, on the one hand, to desire is to suffer, on the other, not desiring is impossible. Therefore, be it due to the illusion of happiness or the tortures of boredom, we are forced to keep ourselves active, and with that we expose ourselves to suffering. In this process, reason can refute biology as much as it wants: it is biting the hand that feeds it and, sooner or later, will suffer reprisals for trying to put aside our instinctual needs. The brain is full of mechanisms that detect attempts to circumvent the rules of this game called life. In this game, we may believe that there is some chance of victory. As in a casino, everything is designed to lead us to believe that we really have some chance of success. Let us remember, however, the main premise: the house always wins. It was nature that made the rules, not us - and as our most primitive instincts prevent us from abandoning our gambling, the fate that awaits us is certain bankruptcy. The fact that we understand the mechanism that leads us to such an impasse does little to change it. As chronic addicts, understanding our addiction is tantamount to illuminating the gears of what controls us - just making our freedom an even more distant dream. We know why we are like this, but this understanding does not allow us to escape from our condition. In this situation, all we can do is play within the rules as intelligently as possible, in order to minimize the suffering of which we are constantly victims.
  • I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.
  • Life is subordinated to the laws of thermodynamics and destined to decay. Suffering is unavoidable because of accidents, defeats, illnesses and aging. Happiness is avoidable; it can be terminated at any point in time. There are genetic defects which cause immense suffering (e.g. Sickle-cell disease). No corresponding phenomenon is known which causes immense happiness. There are more cases of chronic pain than cases of long-lasting pleasure. Due to evolutionary pressure, creatures are capable of experiencing more intense pain than pleasure. The pleasure of orgasm is less than the pain of deadly injury, since death is a much larger loss of reproductive success than a single sex act is a gain [Shulman]. (...) It is easy to make someone unhappy but much less easy to make that person happy again. It is easier to produce suffering than to produce happiness.


  • Nowhere in the universe is there evidence of charity, of kindness, of mercy toward beasts or amongst them, and still less consideration amongst men. Man is only a part of nature, and his conduct is not substantially different from that of all animal life. But for man himself there is little joy. Every child that is born upon the earth arrives through the agony of the mother. From childhood on, the life is full of pain and disappointment and sorrow. From beginning to end it is the prey of disease and misery; not a child is born that is not subject to disease. Parents, family, friends, and acquaintances, one after another die, and leave us bereft. The noble and the ignoble life meets the same fate. Nature knows nothing about right and wrong, good and evil, pleasure and pain; she simply acts. She creates a beautiful woman, and places a cancer on her cheek. She may create an idealist, and kill him with a germ. She creates a fine mind, and then burdens it with a deformed body. And she will create a fine body, apparently for no use whatsoever. She may destroy the most wonderful life when its work has just commenced. She may scatter tubercular germs broadcast throughout the world. She seemingly works with no method, plan or purpose. She knows no mercy nor goodness. Nothing is so cruel and abandoned as Nature. To call her tender or charitable is a travesty upon words and a stultification of intellect. No one can suggest these obvious facts without being told that he is not competent to judge Nature and the God behind Nature. If we must not judge God as evil, then we cannot judge God as good. In all the other affairs of life, man never hesitates to classify and judge, but when it comes to passing on life, and the responsibility of life, he is told that it must be good, although the opinion beggars reason and intelligence and is a denial of both.
  • Whichever way man may look upon the earth, he is oppressed with the suffering incident to life. It would almost seem as though the earth had been created with malignity and hatred. If we look at what we are pleased to call the lower animals, we behold a universal carnage. We speak of the seemingly peaceful woods, but we need only look beneath the surface to be horrified by the misery of that underworld. Hidden in the grass and watching for its prey is the crawling snake which swiftly darts upon the toad or mouse and gradually swallows it alive; the hapless animal is crushed by the jaws and covered with slime, to be slowly digested in furnishing a meal. The snake knows nothing about sin or pain inflicted upon another; he automatically grabs insects and mice and frogs to preserve his life. The spider carefully weaves his web to catch the unwary fly, winds him into the fatal net until paralyzed and helpless, then drinks his blood and leaves him an empty shell. The hawk swoops down and snatches a chicken and carries it to its nest to feed its young. The wolf pounces on the lamb and tears it to shreds. The cat watches at the hole of the mouse until the mouse cautiously comes out, then with seeming fiendish glee he plays with it until tired of the game, then crunches it to death in his jaws. The beasts of the jungle roam by day and night to find their prey; the lion is endowed with strength of limb and fang to destroy and devour almost any animal that it can surprise or overtake. There is no place in the woods or air or sea where all life is not a carnage of death in terror and agony. Each animal is a hunter, and in turn is hunted, by day and night. No landscape is so beautiful or day so balmy but the cry of suffering and sacrifice rends the air. When night settles down over the earth the slaughter is not abated. Some creatures see best at night, and the outcry of the dying and terrified is always on the wind. Almost all animals meet death by violence and through the most agonizing pain. With the whole animal creation there is nothing like a peaceful death. Nowhere in nature is there the slightest evidence of kindness, of consideration, or a feeling for the suffering and the weak, except in the narrow circle of brief family life.
  • While I could provide a series of portraits of each thinker, it will be more effective, and more likely to demonstrate their common endeavor, to proceed through a series of propositions that pessimists subscribe to in greater or less degrees. These propositions, which to some extent build on one another, are, in their bluntest form, as follows: that time is a burden; that the course of history is in some sense ironic; that freedom and happiness are incompatible; and that human existence is absurd. Finally, there is a divide between those pessimists, like Schopenhauer, who suggest that the only reasonable response to these propositions is a kind of resignation, and those, like Nietzsche, who reject resignation in favor of a more life-affirming ethic of individualism and spontaneity.
  • Look at your body—
    A painted puppet, a poor toy
    Of jointed parts ready to collapse,
    A diseased and suffering thing
    With a head full of false imaginings.


  • To my mind, the big picture is unfortunately fairly simple, if hard to stomach. We evolved haphazardly within a random universe; no purpose underpins us, no God watches over us, and no assured glorious future awaits us. We are saddled with a dualistic consciousness that weighs us down and plays tricks on us. We have built and seem unable to dismantle a dehumanizing and destructive civilization and mindset that perpetuates deceit and greed. We can make ourselves as comfortable as possible, as doctors tell their terminally ill patients, but we are sadly incurable.
    • Colin Feltham, Keeping Ourselves in the Dark (2015)
  • So we see, what decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle. This principle dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the start. There can be no doubt about its efficacy, and yet its programme is at loggerheads with the whole world, with the macrocosm as much as with the microcosm. There is no possibility at all of its being carried through; all the regulations of the universe run counter to it. One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’. What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution. Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience. We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body; which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other. We tend to regard it as a kind of gratuitous addition, although it cannot be any less fatefully inevitable than the suffering which comes from elsewhere.


  • Oh wearisome Condition of Humanity!
    Born under one law, to another bound:
    Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,
    Created sick, commanded to be sound:
    What meaneth Nature by these diverse laws?
    Passion and reason, self-division cause.
    Is it the mark, or Majesty of Power
    To make offences that it may forgive?
  • It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my eyes, and, instead of prospects of eternal life, the abyss of an ever open grave yawned before me. Can we say of anything that it exists when all passes away, when time, with the speed of a storm, carries all things onward,—and our transitory existence, hurried along by the torrent, is either swallowed up by the waves or dashed against the rocks? There is not a moment but preys upon you,—and upon all around you, not a moment in which you do not yourself become a destroyer. The most innocent walk deprives of life thousands of poor insects: one step destroys the fabric of the industrious ant, and converts a little world into chaos. No: it is not the great and rare calamities of the world, the floods which sweep away whole villages, the earthquakes which swallow up our towns, that affect me. My heart is wasted by the thought of that destructive power which lies concealed in every part of universal nature. Nature has formed nothing that does not consume itself, and every object near it: so that, surrounded by earth and air, and all the active powers, I wander on my way with aching heart; and the universe is to me a fearful monster, for ever devouring its own offspring.
    • The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774).
  • "Human nature," I continued, "has its limits. It is able to endure a certain degree of joy, sorrow, and pain, but becomes annihilated as soon as this measure is exceeded. The question, therefore, is, not whether a man is strong or weak, but whether he is able to endure the measure of his sufferings. The suffering may be moral or physical; and in my opinion it is just as absurd to call a man a coward who destroys himself, as to call a man a coward who dies of a malignant fever." "Paradox, all paradox!" exclaimed Albert. "Not so paradoxical as you imagine," I replied. "You allow that we designate a disease as mortal when nature is so severely attacked, and her strength so far exhausted, that she cannot possibly recover her former condition under any change that may take place. "Now, my good friend, apply this to the mind; observe a man in his natural, isolated condition; consider how ideas work, and how impressions fasten on him, till at length a violent passion seizes him, destroying all his powers of calm reflection, and utterly ruining him. "It is in vain that a man of sound mind and cool temper understands the condition of such a wretched being, in vain he counsels him. He can no more communicate his own wisdom to him than a healthy man can instil his strength into the invalid, by whose bedside he is seated."
    • The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774).
  • As a way of living, ataraxia is an illusion. Epicureans try to simplify their life so as to reduce to a minimum the pleasures they can lose. But they cannot secure their tranquil garden against the turmoil of history. The Stoic sage insists that while we cannot control the events that happen to us, we can control how we think about them. But this is so only within a narrow margin. A fever, a tsetse fly or a traumatic experience can unsettle the mind at a crucial moment, or for ever. Disciples of Pyrrho try to establish inner equilibrium by a suspension of judgement. But sceptical doubt cannot banish the unrest that comes with being a human being. Even if ataraxia could be achieved, it would be a listless way to live. Luckily, deathly calm is not in practice a state that humans can maintain for very long. All these philosophies have a common failing. They imagine life can be ordered by human reason. Either the mind can devise a way of life that is secure from loss, or else it can control the emotions so that it can withstand any loss. In fact, neither how we live nor the emotions we feel can be controlled in this way. Our lives are shaped by chance and our emotions by the body. Much of human life – and much of philosophy – is an attempt to divert ourselves from this fact.
    • John Gray, Feline Philosophy (2020)
  • Unlike any other animal, [humans] are ready to die for their beliefs. Monotheists and rationalists regard this as a mark of our superiority. It shows we live for the sake of ideas, not just instinctual satisfaction. But if humans are unique in dying for ideas, they are also alone in killing for them. Killing and dying for nonsensical ideas is how many human beings have made sense of their lives. To identify yourself with an idea is to feel protected against death. Like the human beings who are possessed by them, ideas are born and die. While they may survive for generations, they still grow old and pass away. Yet, so long as they are in the grip of an idea, human beings are what Becker called ‘living illusions’. By identifying themselves with an ephemeral fancy they can imagine they are out of time. By killing those who do not share their ideas, they can believe they have conquered death.
    • John Gray, Feline Philosophy (2020)
  • To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives.
    • Mary Gaitskill, Lost Cat (2020)
  • If you are in enough pain, you may not remember who or what you are; you may know only your suffering, which is immense.
    • Mary Gaitskill, Lost Cat (2020)


  • So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
    Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around.
    That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
    Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.
  • But the disease of feeling germed,
    And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong;
    Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed
    How long, how long?
  • 'I know people say I'm a pessimist; but I don't believe I am naturally; I like a lot of things so much; but I could never get over the idea that it would be better for us to be without both the pleasures and the pains; and that the best experience would be some sort of sleep.
  • [P]eople call me a pessimist; and if it is pessimism to think, with Sophocles, that 'not to have been born is best,' then I do not reject the designation. I never could understand why the word 'pessimism' should be such a red rag to many worthy people; and I believe, indeed, that a good deal of the robustious, swaggering optimism of recent literature is at bottom cowardly and insincere. I do not see that we are likely to improve the world by asseverating, however loudly, that black is white, or at least that black is but a necessary contrast and foil, without which white would be white no longer. That is mere juggling with a metaphor. But my pessimism, if pessimism it be, does not involve the assumption that the world is going to the dogs, and that Ahriman is winning all along the line. On the contrary, my practical philosophy is distinctly meliorist. What are my books but one plea against 'man's inhumanity to man' — to woman — and to the lower animals? (By the way, my opposition to 'sport' is a point on which I am rather in conflict with my neighbours hereabouts.) Whatever may be the inherent good or evil of life, it is certain that men make it much worse than it need be. When we have got rid of a thousand remediable ills, it will be time enough to determine whether the ill that is irremediable outweighs the good.


  • Human suffering is so great, so endless, so awful that I can hardly write of it. I could not go into hospitals and face it, as some do, lest my mind should be temporarily overcome. The whole and the worst the worst pessimist can say is far beneath the least particle of the truth, so immense is the misery of man. It is the duty of all rational beings to acknowledge the truth. There is not the least trace of directing intelligence in human affairs. This is a foundation of hope, because, if the present condition of things were ordered by a superior power, there would be no possibility of improving it for the better in the spite of that power. Acknowledging that no such direction exists, all things become at once plastic to our will.


  • We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours? And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.
  • Marry, and you will regret it; don't marry, you will also regret it; marry or don't marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world's foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world's foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe her not, you will also regret it [...] Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don't hang yourself, you'll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.
  • I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?
  • Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth — look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.
  • The whole order of things fills me with a sense of anguish, from the gnat to the mysteries of incarnation; all is entirely unintelligible to me, and particularly my own person. Great is my sorrow, without limits. None knows of it, except God in Heaven, and He cannot have pity.
  • Your own death, or the death of your near and dear ones, is not something you can experience. What you actually experience is the void created by the disappearance of another individual, and the unsatisfied demand to maintain the continuity of your relationship with that person for a nonexistent eternity. The arena for the continuation of all these “permanent” relationships is the tomorrow—heaven, next life, and so on. These things are the inventions of a mind interested only in its undisturbed, permanent continuity in a “self”-generated, fictitious future. The basic method of maintaining the continuity is the repetition of the question, “How? How? How?” “How am I to live? How can I be happy? How can I be sure I will be happy tomorrow?” This has made life an insoluble dilemma for us. We want to know, and through that knowledge we hope to continue on with our miserable existences forever.


  • My philosophy isn't only not conducive to misanthropy, as it might appear to a superficial reader, and as many have accused me. It essentially rules out misanthropy, it tends toward healing, to dissolving discontent and hatred. Not knee-jerk hatred but the deep-dyed hatred that unreflective people who would deny being misanthropes so cordially bear (habitually or on select occasions) toward their own kind in response to hurts they receive—as we all do, justly or not—from others. My philosophy holds nature guilty of everything, it acquits mankind completely and directs our hate, or at least our lamentations, to its matrix, to the true origin of the afflictions living creatures suffer, etc.
  • Noia is plainly an evil: to suffer it is to suffer utter unhappiness. So what is noia? Not a specific sorrow or pain (noia, the idea and nature of it, excludes the presence of any particular sorrow or pain) but simply ordinary life fully felt, lived in, known; it's everywhere, it saturates an individual. Life thus is an affliction; and not living, or being less alive (by living a shorter or less intense life) is a reprieve, or a least a lesser affliction—absolutely preferable, that is, to life.
  • Everything is evil. That is to say everything that is, is evil; that each thing exists is an evil; each thing exists only for an evil end; existence is an evil and made for evil; the end of the universe is evil; the order and the state, the laws, the natural development of the universe are nothing but evil, and they are directed to nothing but evil. There is no other good except nonbeing; there is nothing good except what is not; things that are not things: all things are bad. All existence; the complex of so many worlds that exist; the universe; is only a spot, a speck in metaphysics. Existence, by its nature and essence and generally, is an imperfection, an irregularity, a monstrosity. But this imperfection is a tiny thing, literally a spot, because all the worlds that exist, however many and however extensive they are, since they are certainly not infinite in number or in size, are consequently infinitely small in comparison with the size the universe might be if it were infinite, and the whole of existence is infinitely small in comparison with the true infinity, so to speak, of nonexistence, of nothing.
  • This system, although it clashes with those ideas of ours that the end can be no other than good, is probably more sustainable than that of Leibniz, Pope, etc., that everything is good. I would not dare however to go on to say that the universe which exists is the worst of possible universes, thereby substituting pessimism for optimism. Who can know the limits of possibility?
  • What is certain and no laughing matter is that existence is an evil for all the parts which make up the universe (and so it is hard to think it is not an evil for the whole universe as well, and even harder to make, as philosophers do, "Des malheurs de chaque être un bonheur général" ["Of the misfortunes of each being a general happiness"]. Voltaire, Épître sur le désastre de Lisbonne. It is incomprehensible how out of the suffering of every individual without exception, can come a universal good; how from the whole of many misfortunes and nothing else, a good can come). That is made manifest when we see that everything in its own way necessarily suffers, and necessarily does not enjoy any pleasure, because pleasure does not exist strictly speaking. Now given that that is the case, how can you not say that existence is in itself an evil?
  • Not only individual men, but the whole human race was and always will be necessarily unhappy. Not only the human race but the whole animal world. Not only animals but all other beings in their way. Not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds.
  • I found myself desperately bored with life, with a very strong desire to kill myself, and had an intimation of something bad, which frightened me at the very moment that I wanted to die, and placed me immediately in a state of apprehension and anxiety. I have never felt so strongly the absolute conflict of the elements that form the present human condition, forced to fear for its life and to seek at all costs to preserve it, just then when it was most burdensome, and when it could resolve to be ended by its own will (but by no other cause).
  • It were more reasonable that you [Nature] made happiness a necessity; or this being impossible, it were better not to bring men into the world.
  • Thus I reply to you [Nature]. I am well aware you did not make the world for the service of men. It were easier to believe that you made it expressly as a place of torment for them. But tell me: why am I here at all? Did I ask to come into the world? Or am I here unnaturally, contrary to your will? If however, you yourself have placed me here, without giving me the power of acceptance or refusal of this gift of life, ought you not as far as possible to try and make me happy, or at least preserve me from the evils and dangers, which render my sojourn a painful one? And what I say of myself, I say of the whole human race, and of every living creature.
  • It seems as though death were the essential aim of all things. That which has no existence cannot die; yet all that exists has proceeded from nothing. The final cause of existence is not happiness, for nothing is happy. It is true, living creatures seek this end in all their works, but none obtain it; and during all their life, ever deceiving, tormenting, and exerting themselves, they suffer indeed for no other purpose than to die.
  • If, on the one hand, I were offered the fortune and fame of Cæsar or Alexander, free from the least stain; and, on the other hand, death to-day, I should unhesitatingly choose to die to-day.
  • Death is not an evil, because it frees us from all evils, and while it takes away good things, it takes away also the desire for them. Old age is the supreme evil, because it deprives us of all pleasures, leaving us only the appetite for them, and it brings with it all sufferings. Nevertheless, we fear death, and we desire old age.
  • For better or worse, pessimism without compromise lacks public appeal. In all, the few who have gone to the pains of arguing for a sullen appraisal of life might as well never have been born. As history confirms, people will change their minds about almost anything, from which god they worship to how they style their hair. But when it comes to existential judgments, human beings in general have an unfalteringly good opinion of themselves and their condition in this world and are steadfastly confident they are not a collection of self-conscious nothings.
  • For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death—and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying—and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are— hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.
  • Perhaps the greatest strike against philosophical pessimism is that its only theme is human suffering. This is the last item on the list of our species’ obsessions and detracts from everything that matters to us, such as the Good, the Beautiful, and a Sparkling Clean Toilet Bowl. For the pessimist, everything considered in isolation from human suffering or any cognition that does not have as its motive the origins, nature, and elimination of human suffering is at base recreational, whether it takes the form of conceptual probing or physical action in the world—for example, delving into game theory or traveling in outer space, respectively. And by "human suffering," the pessimist is not thinking of particular sufferings and their relief, but of suffering itself. Remedies may be discovered for certain diseases and sociopolitical barbarities may be amended. But these are only stopgaps. Human suffering will remain insoluble as long as human beings exist. The one truly effective solution for suffering is that spoken of in Zapffe’s "Last Messiah." It may not be a welcome solution for a stopgaps world, but it would forever put an end to suffering, should we ever care to do so. The pessimist’s credo, or one of them, is that nonexistence never hurt anyone and existence hurts everyone. Although our selves may be illusory creations of consciousness, our pain is nonetheless real.
  • Immune to the blandishments of religions, countries, families, and everything else that puts both average and above-average citizens in the limelight, pessimists are sideliners in both history and the media. Without a belief in gods or ghosts, unmotivated by a comprehensive delusion, they could never plant a bomb, plan a revolution, or shed blood for a cause.
  • Not unexpectedly, no one believes that everything is useless, and with good reason. We all live in relative frameworks, and within those frameworks uselessness is far wide from the norm. A potato masher is not useless if one wants to mash potatoes. For some people, a system of being that includes an afterlife of eternal bliss may not seem useless. They might say that such a system is absolutely useful because it gives them the hope they need to make it through this life. But an afterlife of eternal bliss is not and cannot be absolutely useful simply because you need it to be. It is part of a relative framework and nothing beyond that, just as a potato masher is only part of a relative framework and is only useful if you need to mash potatoes. Once you had made it through this life to an afterlife of eternal bliss, you would have no use for that afterlife. Its job would be done, and all you would have is an afterlife of eternal bliss—a paradise for reverent hedonists and pious libertines. What is the use in that? You might as well not exist at all, either in this life or in an afterlife of eternal bliss. Any kind of existence is useless. Nothing is self-justifying. Everything is justified only in a relative potato-masher sense.
  • If human pleasure did not have both a lid and a time limit, we would not bestir ourselves to do things that were not pleasurable, such as toiling for our subsistence. And then we would not survive. By the same token, should our mass mind ever become discontented with the restricted pleasures doled out by nature, as well as disgruntled over the lack of restrictions on pain, we would omit the mandates of survival from our lives out of a stratospherically acerbic indignation. And then we would not reproduce. As a species, we do not shout into the sky, “The pleasures of this world are not enough for us.” In fact, they are just enough to drive us on like oxen pulling a cart full of our calves, which in their turn will put on the yoke. As inordinately evolved beings, though, we can postulate that it will not always be this way. “A time will come,” we say to ourselves, “when we will unmake this world in which we are battered between long burden and brief delight, and will live in pleasure for all our days.” The belief in the possibility of long-lasting, high-flown pleasures is a deceptive but adaptive flimflam. It seems that nature did not make us to feel too good for too long, which would be no good for the survival of the species, but only to feel good enough for long enough to keep us from complaining that we do not feel good all the time.
  • What meaning our lives may seem to have is the work of a relatively well-constituted emotional system. As consciousness gives us the sense of being persons, our psychophysiology is responsible for making us into personalities who believe the existential game to be worth playing. We may have memories that are unlike those of anyone else, but without the proper emotions to liven those memories they might as well reside in a computer file as disconnected bits of data that never unite into a tailor-made individual for whom things seem to mean something. You can conceptualize that your life has meaning, but if you do not feel that meaning then your conceptualization is meaningless and you are nobody. The only matters of weight in our lives are colored by rainbows or auroras of regulated emotion which give one a sense of that “old self.” But a major depression causes your emotions to evaporate, reducing you to a shell of a person standing alone in a drab landscape. Emotions are the substrate for the illusion of being a somebody among somebodies as well as for the substance we see, or think we see, in the world. Not knowing this ground-level truth of human existence is the equivalent of knowing nothing at all.
  • This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. Whatever may be really “out there” cannot project itself as an affective experience. It is all a vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige. Nothing is either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, or anything else except that it is made so by laboratories inside us producing the emotions on which we live. And to live on our emotions is to live arbitrarily, inaccurately—imparting meaning to what has none of its own. Yet what other way is there to live? Without the ever-clanking machinery of emotion, everything would come to a standstill. There would be nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no one to know. The alternatives are clear: to live falsely as pawns of affect, or to live factually as depressives, or as individuals who know what is known to the depressive. How advantageous that we are not coerced into choosing one or the other, neither choice being excellent. One look at human existence is proof enough that our species will not be released from the stranglehold of emotionalism that anchors it to hallucinations. That may be no way to live, but to opt for depression would be to opt out of existence as we consciously know it.
  • That there is redemption to be found in an ecumenical nonexistence is an old idea on which Mainländer put a new face. For some it is a cherished idea, like that of a peaceful afterlife or progress toward perfection in this life. The need for such ideas comes out of the fact that existence is a condition with no redeeming qualities. If this were not so, none would need cherished ideas like an ecumenical nonexistence, a peaceful afterlife, or progress toward perfection in this life.
  • The human being is endowed with a great sensibility together with a strong knowledge of his limitations and conditions: with this, one has the right "recipe" for a suffering being. That is to say, a being who is fully aware that he will die, that he will be regularly attacked by organisms, who gradually and inexorably advances towards decrepitude, who knows that he will most probably have to suffer the death of his parents, his father and his mother, as well as the death of other family members and friends, and who cares very much about all this, who wishes he did not have to go through those experiencies, who feels harmed by all these necessities of his life.


  • In the immense sphere of living things, the obvious rule is violence, a kind of inevitable frenzy which arms all things in mutua funera. Once you leave the world of insensible substances, you find the decree of violent death written on the very frontiers of life. Even in the vegetable kingdom, this law can be perceived: from the huge catalpa to the smallest of grasses, how many plants die and how many are killed! But once you enter the animal kingdom, the law suddenly becomes frighteningly obvious. A power at once hidden and palpable appears constantly occupied in bringing to light the principle of life by violent means. In each great division of the animal world, it has chosen a certain number of animals charged with devouring the others; so there are insects of prey, reptiles of prey, birds of prey, fish of prey, and quadrupeds of prey. There is not an instant of time when some living creature is not devoured by another [...] Thus is worked out, from maggots up to man, the universal law of the violent destruction of living beings. The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without respite until the consummation of the world, the extinction of evil, the death of death.
  • In accordance with the NU-assumption [Negative Utilitarian assumption], I presuppose that satisfying preferences is ultimately not a valid option, because of impermanence and a deep phenomenological asymmetry between positive self-model moments and negative ones (NSMs) [Negative Self-models]. First, physical embodiment, impermanence and transience prevent any more permanent satisfaction of preferences (or a stable state in the self-model). In addition, the phenomenology of suffering is not a simple mirror-image of happiness, mainly because it involves a much higher urgency of change. In most forms of happiness this centrally relevant subjective quality which I have termed the “urgency of change” is absent, because they do not include any strong preference for being even more happy. In fact, a lot of what we describe as “happiness” may turn out to be a relief from the urgency of change. The subjective sense of urgency – in combination with the phenomenal quality of losing control and coherence of the phenomenal self – is what makes conscious suffering a very distinct class of states, not just the negative version of happiness. This subjective quality of urgency is also reflected in our widespread moral intuition that, in an ethical sense, it is much more urgent to help a suffering person than to make a happy person even happier.
  • We are systems that have been optimised to procreate as effectively as possible and to sustain their existence for millions of years. In this process, a large set of cognitive biases have been installed in our self-model. Our deepest cognitive bias is “existence bias”, which means that we will simply do almost anything to prolong our own existence. Sustaining one’s existence is the default goal in almost every case of uncertainty, even if it may violate rationality constraints, simply because it is a biological imperative that has been burned into our nervous systems over millennia.
  • [H]ad the inventor of conscious suffering been a person, we could describe the overall process as extremely cruel. Above a certain level of complexity, evolution continuously instantiates an enormous number of frustrated preferences; it has brought an expanding and continuously deepening ocean of consciously experienced suffering into a region of the physical universe where nothing comparable existed before.


  • Out—out are the lights—out all!
    And, over each quivering form,
    The curtain, a funeral pall,
    Comes down with the rush of a storm,
    While the angels, all pallid and wan,
    Uprising, unveiling, affirm
    That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"
    And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.
  • Life is quite unbearable for a human without the “risk and adventure” of a story-bound life. What we are looking for when we look for the “meaning of life” is the greater story. The unfortunate truth, suggested by science and vehemently denied by religion, is that there is no greater story. We may make up stories and allow them to shape our perceptions, but ultimately there is no story. We are all living in the epilogue of reality, or rather worse, because there never was a story. For many of us, our personal stories have run out—and it’s extremely difficult to push oneself into a new story once you see that all stories are vanity. It is like the difficulty of staying in a dream once one realizes one is dreaming.
    • Sarah Perry, Every Cradle is a Grave (2014), pp. 209-210.
  • Why are drugs, prostitution, gambling and suicide illegal, when they clearly give so much relief to suffering people? I think it is because, at a societal level, we are deluded into thinking that happiness is possible, maybe even easy or likely, without these things. I have called this “cheery social policy." The fundamental problem with this sort of cheeriness is the assumption that a good life—a pleasant life—is relatively easy to achieve. Cheery people are able to hold such a belief because they are able to ignore—and perhaps can’t even conceive of—the suffering of a significant minority of the population. A good life is not easily achieved for many of us.
    • Sarah Perry, Every Cradle is a Grave (2014), p. 210.
  • (Eat your chocolates, little girl,
    Eat your chocolates!
    Believe me, there's no metaphysics on earth like chocolates,
    And all religions put together teach no more than the candy shop.
    Eat, dirty little girl, eat!
    If only I could eat chocolates with the same truth as you!
    But I think and, removing the silver paper that's tinfoil,
    I throw it all on the ground, as I've thrown out life.)
  • The Tobacco Shop Owner has come to the door and is standing there.
    I look at him with the discomfort of a half-twisted neck
    Compounded by the discomfort of a half-grasping soul.
    He will die and I will die.
    He'll leave his signboard, I'll leave my poems.
    His sign will also eventually die, and so will my poems.
    Eventually the street where the sign was will die,
    And so will the language in which my poems were written.
    Then the whirling planet where all of this happened will die.
    On other planets of other solar systems something like people
    Will continue to make things like poems and to live under things like signs,
    Always one thing facing the other,
    Always one thing as useless as the other,
    Always the impossible as stupid as reality,
    Always the inner mystery as true as the mystery sleeping on the surface.
    Always this thing or always that, or neither one thing nor the other.
  • It's not the cracked walls of my rented room, nor the shabby desks in the office where I work, nor the poverty of the same old downtown streets in between, which I've crossed and recrossed so many times they seem to have assumed the immobility of the irreparable - none of that is responsible for my frequent feeling of nausea over the squalor of daily life. It's the people who habitually surround me, the souls who know me through conversation and daily contact without knowing me at all - they're the ones who cause a salivary knot of physical disgust to form in my throat. It's the sordid monotony of their lives, outwardly parallel to my own, and their keen awareness that I'm their fellow man - that is what dresses me in a convict's clothes, places me in a jail cell, and makes me apocryphal and beggarly.
  • Everything wearies me, even those things that don’t. My joy is as painful as my grief. I wish I could be a child sailing paper boats on a pond in the garden, with the sky above crisscrossed by the vine trellis, casting checkerboards of light and green shade on the somber reflections in the shallow water. A tenuous pane of glass stands between me and life. However clearly I see and understand life, I cannot touch it. Should we reason our way out of sadness? But why, when reasoning requires effort? And the sad man lacks the necessary energy to make any effort at all. I do not even abdicate from the banal gestures of life from which I so wish I could abdicate. Abdication takes effort, and I do not have enough soul to make that effort. How often it pains me not to be the captain of that ship, the driver of that train! To be some other banal individual whose life, because not mine, fills me with delicious longing and a poetic sense of otherness! I would not then be horrified of life as a Thing. The notion of life as a Whole would not weigh down the shoulders of my thoughts. My dreams are a foolish refuge, about as reliable as an umbrella in a thunderstorm. I am so inert, such a poor wretch, so entirely lacking in gestures and actions. However deep I plunge into myself, all the paths of my dreams lead into clearings of anxiety. Even though I am a prolific dreamer, there are times when dreams escape me. Then things appear clearer. The mist I surround myself with dissipates. And all the now visibly rough edges wound the flesh of my soul. All the hard surfaces bruise the part of me that knows them to be hard. All the visibly heavy objects weigh on my soul. It’s as if someone were using my life to beat me with.
  • Ah, now I understand! Senhor Vasques is Life; Life, monotonous and necessary, commanding and unknowable. This banal man represents the banality of life. On the surface he is everything to me, just as, on the surface, Life is everything to me. And if the office in the Rua dos Douradores represents Life for me, the fourth-floor room I live in on that same street represents Art. Yes, Art, living on the same street as Life but in a different room; Art, which offers relief from life without actually relieving one of living, and which is as monotonous as life itself, but in a different way. Yes, for me Rua dos Douradores embraces the meaning of all things, the resolution of all mysteries, except the existence of mysteries themselves, which is something beyond resolution.
  • Everything is absurd. One man spends his life earning money which he then saves even though he has no children to leave it to nor any hope that a heaven somewhere will offer him a divine reward. Another puts all his efforts into becoming famous so that he will be remembered once dead, yet he does not believe in a survival of the soul that would give him knowledge of that fame. Yet another wears himself out looking for things he doesn’t even like. Then there is the man who ... One man reads in order to know, all in vain. Another enjoys himself in order to live, again all in vain. I’m riding a tram and, as is my habit, slowly absorbing every detail of the people around me. By “detail” I mean things, voices, words. In the dress of the girl directly in front of me, for example, I see the material it’s made of, the work involved in making it — since it’s a dress and not just material — and I see in the delicate embroidery around the neck the silk thread with which it was embroidered and all the work that went into that. And immediately, as if in a primer on political economy, I see before me the factories and all the different jobs: the factory where the material was made; the factory that made the darker-colored thread that ornaments with curlicues the neck of the dress; and I see the different workshops in the factories, the machines, the workmen, the seamstresses. My eyes’ inward gaze even penetrates into the offices, where I see the managers trying to keep calm and the figures set out in the account books, but that’s not all: beyond that I see into the domestic lives of those who spend their working hours in these factories and offices ... A whole world unfolds before my eyes all because of the regularly irregular dark green edging to a pale green dress worn by the girl in front of me of whom I see only her brown neck. A whole way of life lies before me. I sense the loves, the secrets, the souls of all those who worked just so that this woman in front of me on the tram could wear around her mortal neck the sinuous banality of a thread of dark green silk on a background of light green cloth. I grow dizzy. The seats on the tram, of fine, strong cane, carry me to distant regions, divide into industries, workmen, houses, lives, realities, everything. I leave the tram exhausted, like a sleepwalker, having lived a whole life.
  • The idea of traveling makes me feel physically sick. I’ve already seen everything I’ve never seen. I’ve already seen everything I haven’t yet seen. The tedium of the constantly new, the tedium of discovering, beneath the transitory difference of things and ideas, the perennial sameness of everything, the absolute similarity between a mosque, a temple and a church, the absolute equivalence between a cabin and a castle, the same physical body in a king in all his finery and a naked savage, the eternal concordance of life with itself, the stagnation of everything that lives despite the constant changes to which it is eternally condemned. Landscapes are repetitions. On an ordinary train journey, I divide myself pointlessly and nervously between not looking at the landscape and not looking at the book that would be keeping me amused if I were someone else. Life already gives me a vague sense of nausea, and movement only aggravates that. The only nontedious landscapes and books are landscapes that don’t exist and books I will never read. For me, life is a somnolence that does not affect the brain. I keep that free as a place in which to be sad. Leave traveling to those who don’t exist! Presumably for someone who is nothing, life, like a river, is a simple matter of flowing ever onwards. For those who think and feel, those who are awake, the ghastly experience of sitting on a train, in a car or in a ship lets them neither sleep nor wake. I return from any journey, however short, as if from a sleep full of dreams — in a state of torpid confusion, with all my sensations glued together, drunk on what I have seen. I can’t rest because my soul is sick. I can’t move because there’s something lacking between body and soul; it’s not movement I lack, but the desire to move.
  • Reading the newspapers, always painful from an aesthetic point of view, is often morally painful too, even for one with little time for morality. When one reads of wars and revolutions — there’s always one or the other going on — one feels not horror but boredom. It isn’t the cruel fate of all those dead and wounded, the sacrifice of those who die as warriors or onlookers, that weighs so heavy on the heart; it’s the stupidity that sacrifices lives and possessions to anything so unutterably vain. All ideals and ambitions are just the ravings of gossiping men. No empire merits even the smashing of a child’s doll. No ideal merits even the sacrifice of one toy train. What empire is really useful, what ideal really profitable? Everything comes from humanity and humanity is always the same — changeable but incapable of perfection, vacillating but incapable of progress. Given this irredeemable state of affairs, given a life we were given we know not how and will lose we know not when, given the ten thousand chess games that make up the struggles of life lived in society, given the tedium of vainly contemplating what will never be achieved [...] — what can the wise man do but beg for rest, for a respite from having to think about living (as if having to live were not enough), for a small space in the sun and the open countryside and at least the dream that somewhere beyond the mountains there is peace.


  • Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.
  • Take stock of those around you and you will … hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyse those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.


  • So they were, and so they are; and as they came are coming others,
    And among them are the fearless and the meek and the unborn;
    And a question that has held us heretofore without an answer
    May abide without an answer until all have ceased to mourn.
    For the children of the dark are more to name than are the wretched,
    Or the broken, or the weary, or the baffled, or the shamed:
    There are builders of new mansions in the Valley of the Shadow,
    And among them are the dying and the blinded and the maimed.
  • Your fly will serve as well as anybody,
    And what's his hour? He flies, and flies, and flies,
    And in his fly's mind has a brave appearance;
    And then your spider gets him in her net,
    And eats him out, and hangs him up to dry.
    That's Nature, the kind mother of us all.
    And then your slattern housemaid swings her broom,
    And where's your spider? And that's Nature, also.
    It's Nature, and it's Nothing. It's all Nothing.
    It's all a world where bugs and emperors
    Go singularly back to the same dust,
    Each in his time; and the old, ordered stars
    That sang together, Ben, will sing the same
    Old stave to-morrow.
  • The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. Various explanations such as diagnosticity and salience help explain some findings, but the greater power of bad events is still found when such variables are controlled. Hardly any exceptions (indicating greater power of good) can be found. Taken together, these findings suggest that bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena.
  • Let us briefly summarize the evidence. In everyday life, bad events have stronger and more lasting consequences than comparable good events. Close relationships are more deeply and conclusively affected by destructive actions than by constructive ones, by negative communications than positive ones, and by conflict than harmony. Additionally, these effects extend to marital satisfaction and even to the relationship's survival (vs. breakup or divorce). Even outside of close relationships, unfriendly or conflictual interactions are seen as stronger and have bigger effects than friendly, harmonious ones. Bad moods and negative emotions have stronger effects than good ones on cognitive processing, and the bulk of affect regulation efforts is directed at escaping from bad moods (e.g., as opposed to entering or prolonging good moods). That suggests that people's desire to get out of a bad mood is stronger than their desire to get into a good one. The preponderance of words for bad emotions, contrasted with the greater frequency of good emotions, suggests that bad emotions have more power. Some patterns of learning suggest that bad things are more quickly and effectively learned than corresponding good things. The lack of a positive counterpart to the concept of trauma is itself a sign that single bad events often have effects that are much more lasting and important than any results of single good events. Bad parenting can be stronger than genetic influences; good parenting is not. Research on social support has repeatedly found that negative, conflictual behaviors in one's social network have stronger effects than positive, supportive behaviors. Bad things receive more attention and more thorough cognitive processing than good things. When people first learn about one another, bad information has a significantly stronger impact on the total impression than any comparable good information. The self appears to be more strongly motivated to avoid the bad than to embrace the good. Bad stereotypes and reputations are easier to acquire, and harder to shed, than good ones. Bad feedback has stronger effects than good feedback. Bad health has a greater impact on happiness than good health, and health itself is more affected by pessimism (the presence or absence of a negative outlook) than optimism (the presence or absence of a positive outlook). Convergence is also provided by Rozin and Royzman (in press). Quite independently of this project, these authors reviewed the literature on interactions between good and bad, and they too concluded that bad things generally prevail. Our review has emphasized independent, parallel effects of good and bad factors, whereas theirs emphasized good and bad factors competing directly against each other in the same situation (such as contagion). Both approaches have confirmed the greater power of bad factors. Thus, the greater impact of bad than good is extremely pervasive. It is found in both cognition and motivation; in both inner, intrapsychic processes and in interpersonal ones; in connection with decisions about the future and to a limited extent with memories of the past; and in animal learning, complex human information processing, and emotional responses.


  • On this vista the curtain may be drawn. Neither poet nor seer can look beyond. Nature, who is unconscious in her immorality, entrancing in her beauty, savage in her cruelty, imperial in her prodigality, and appalling in her convulsions, is not only deaf, but dumb. There is no answer to any appeal. The best we can do, the best that has ever been done, is to recognise the implacability of the laws that rule the universe, and contemplate as calmly as we can the nothingness from which we are come and into which we shall all disappear. The one consolation that we hold, though it is one which may be illusory too, consists in the belief that when death comes, fear and hope are at an end. Then wonder ceases; the insoluble no longer perplexes; space is lost; the infinite is blank; the farce is done.
  • Fichte, Kant's immediate successor, declared, in direct contradiction to Leibnitz, that this world was the worst one possible, and was only consoled by thinking he could raise himself by the aid of pure thought into the felicity of the "supersensible." "Men," he says, "in the vehement pursuit of happiness grasp at the first object which offers to them any prospect of satisfaction, but immediately they turn an introspective eye and ask, 'Am I happy?' and at once from their innermost being a voice answers distinctly, 'No, you are as poor and as miserable as before.' Then they think it was the object that deceived them, and turn precipitately to another. But the second holds as little satisfaction as the first.... Wandering then through life, restless and tormented, at each successive station they think that happiness dwells at the next, but when they reach it happiness is no longer there. In whatever position they may find themselves there is always another one which they discern from afar, and which but to touch, they think, is to find the wished delight, but when the goal is reached discontent has followed on the way and stands in haunting constancy before them."
  • The question, then, as to whether life is valuable, valueless, or an affliction can, with regard to the individual, be answered only after a consideration of the different circumstances attendant on each particular case; but, broadly speaking, and disregarding its necessary exceptions, life may be said to be always valuable to the obtuse, often valueless to the sensitive; while to him who commiserates with all mankind, and sympathizes with everything that is, life never appears otherwise than as an immense and terrible affliction.
  • This vanity finds its expression in the whole form of existence; in the infinite nature of time and space as opposed to the finite nature of the individual in both; in the transitory and passing present moment as reality's sole mode of existence; in the dependence and relativity of all things; in constant becoming without being; in constant desire without satisfaction; in the constant interruption of efforts and aspirations which constitutes the course of life until such obstruction is overcome. Time and the fleeting nature of all things therein, and by means thereof, are merely the form wherein is revealed to the will-to-live, which as the thing-in-itself is imperishable, the vanity of that striving. Time is that by virtue whereof at every moment all things in our hands come to naught and thereby lose all true value.
  • On considerations such as the foregoing, we can certainly base the theory that to enjoy the present moment and to make this the object of our life is the greatest wisdom because the present alone is real, everything else being only the play of thought. But we could just as well call it the greatest folly; for that which in the next moment no longer exists, and vanishes as completely as a dream, is never worth a serious effort.
  • Our existence has no foundation to support it except the ever-fleeting and vanishing present; and so constant motion is essentially its form, without any possibility of that rest for which we are always longing. We resemble a man running down hill who would inevitably fall if he tried to stop, and who keeps on his legs only by continuing to run; or we are like a stick balanced on a finger tip; or the planet that would fall into its sun if it ceased to hurry forward irresistibly. Thus restlessness is the original form of existence.
  • In such a world where there is no stability of any kind, no lasting state is possible but everything is involved in restless rotation and change, where everyone hurries along and keeps erect on a tightrope by always advancing and moving, happiness is not even conceivable. It cannot dwell where Plato's 'constant becoming and never being' is the only thing that occurs. In the first place, no one is happy, but everyone throughout his life strives for an alleged happiness that is rarely attained, and even then only to disappoint him. As a rule, everyone ultimately reaches port with masts and rigging gone; but then it is immaterial whether he was happy or unhappy in a life which consisted merely of a fleeting vanishing present and is now over and finished.
  • Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied, all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom. This is direct proof that existence has no real value in itself; for what is boredom but the feeling of the emptiness of life? If life—the craving for which is the very essence of our being—were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing.
  • The most perfect phenomenon of the will-to-live, which manifests itself in the exceedingly ingenious and complex mechanism of the human organism, must crumble to dust, and thus its whole essence and efforts are in the end obviously given over to annihilation. All this is the naïve utterance of nature, always true and sincere, that the whole striving of that will is essentially empty and vain. If we were something valuable in itself, something that could be unconditioned and absolute, it would not have non-existence as its goal.
  • What a difference there is between our beginning and our end! The former in the frenzy of desire and the ecstasy of sensual pleasure; the latter in the destruction of all the organs and the musty odour of corpses. The path from birth to death is always downhill as regards well-being and the enjoyment of life; blissfully dreaming childhood, light-hearted youth, toilsome manhood, frail and often pitiable old age, the torture of the last illness, and finally the agony of death. Does it not look exactly as if existence were a false step whose consequences gradually become more and more obvious?
  • If from contemplating the course of the world on a large scale and especially from considering the rapid succession of generations of people and their ephemeral mock-existence we turn and look at human life in detail as presented say by the comedy, then the impression this now makes is like that of a drop of water, seen through a microscope and teeming with infusoria or that of an otherwise visible little heap of cheese-mites whose strenuous activity and strife make us laugh. For, as in the narrowest space, so too in the briefest span of time, great and serious activity produces a comic effect.
  • The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.
  • If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.
  • The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instil in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.
  • The state of human happiness, for the most part, is like certain groups of trees, which seen from a distance look wonderfully fine; but if we go up to them and among them, their beauty disappears; we do not know wherein it lay, for it is only trees that surround us. And so it happens that we often envy the position of others.
  • For whence did Dante take the materials for his hell but from this our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell of it. And when, on the other hand, he came to the task of describing heaven and its delights, he had an insurmountable difficulty before him, for our world affords no materials at all for this.
  • And to this world, to this scene of tormented and agonised beings, who only continue to exist by devouring each other, in which, therefore, every ravenous beast is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of painful deaths; and in which the capacity for feeling pain increases with knowledge, and therefore reaches its highest degree in man, a degree which is the higher the more intelligent the man is; to this world it has been sought to apply the system of optimism, and demonstrate to us that it is the best of all possible worlds. The absurdity is glaring. But an optimist bids me open my eyes and look at the world, how beautiful it is in the sunshine, with its mountains and valleys, streams, plants, animals, &c. &c. Is the world, then, a peep show? These things are certainly beautiful to look at, but to be them is something quite different.
  • If, finally, we were to bring to the sight of everyone the terrible sufferings and afflictions to which his life is constantly exposed, he would be seized with horror. If we were to conduct the most hardened and callous optimist through hospitals, infirmaries, operating theatres, through prisons, torture-chambers, and slave-hovels, over battlefields and to places of execution; if we were to open to him all the dark abodes of misery, where it shuns the gaze of cold curiosity, and finally were to allow him to glance into the dungeon of Ugolino where prisoners starved to death, he too would certainly see in the end what kind of a world is this meilleur des mondes possibles.
    • Arthur Schopenhauer, trans. E. F. J. Payne, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1 (1969), p. 325
  • I cannot help but feel the suffering all around me, not only of humanity but of the whole of creation. I have never tried to withdraw myself from this community of suffering. It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain which lies upon the world.
  • Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.
  • Not to be born is the first choice,
    the prize beyond any other.
    But once he has seen the light,
    the next best is to go back
    to that dark place from which he came
    as soon as possible.
    In thoughtless youth
    all seems well at first—
    then suffering begins
    and every blow strikes home:
    envy, factions, war, and murder.
    Troubles abound. And afterwards
    comes hateful, feeble old age,
    crabbed and friendless—
    the evils compound.
    • Sophocles, trans. Ruth Fainlight and Robert J. Littman, Oedipus at Colonus 1224–1238
    • Description: Said by Antistrophe.
  • The crux of the terror management answer to the question, "Why do people need self-esteem?" is that self-esteem functions to shelter people from deeply rooted anxiety inherent in the human condition. Self-esteem is a protective shield designed to control the potential for terror that results from awareness of the horrifying possibility that we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe, destined only to die and decay. From this perspective, then, each individual human’s name and identity, family and social identifications, goals and aspirations, occupation and title, are humanly created adornments draped over an animal that, in the cosmic scheme of things, may be no more significant or enduring than any individual potato, pineapple, or porcupine. But it is this elaborate drapery that provides us with the fortitude to carry on despite the uniquely human awareness of our mortal fate.
  • TMT [Terror Management Theory] starts with the proposition that the juxtaposition of a biologically rooted desire for life with the awareness of the inevitability of death (which resulted from the evolution of sophisticated cognitive abilities unique to humankind) gives rise to the potential for paralyzing terror. Our species “solved” the problem posed by the prospect of existential terror by using the same sophisticated cognitive capacities that gave rise to the awareness of death to create cultural worldviews: humanly constructed shared symbolic conceptions of reality that give meaning, order, and permanence to existence; provide a set of standards for what is valuable; and promise some form of either literal or symbolic immortality to those who believe in the cultural worldview and live up to its standards of value. Literal immortality is bestowed by the explicitly religious aspects of cultural worldviews that directly address the problem of death and promise heaven, reincarnation, or other forms of afterlife to the faithful who live by the standards and teachings of the culture. Symbolic immortality is conferred by cultural institutions that enable people to feel part of something larger, more significant, and more eternal than their own individual lives through connections and contributions to their families, nations, professions, and ideologies.


  • Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is a catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me – and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.
  • But depression wasn't the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn't he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells await them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom.
  • The problem of pessimism can be fixated in this way: does life stand above or below non-existence in terms of eudaimonological value, is the existence of the world preferable to its non-existence, or is the non-existence of the world preferable to its existence?
  • For it may be very plausibly urged on their behalf, that it is impossible to extinguish evil until the origin thereof has been discovered and destroyed. This great river of human Time (rivers were expressly created to feed metaphors, allegories, and navigable canals) which comes flowing down thick with filth and blood from the immemorial past surely cannot be thoroughly cleansed by any purifying process applied to it here in the present for the pollution, if not in its very source (supposing it has a source), or deriving from unimaginable remotenesses of eternity indefinitely beyond its source, at any rate interfused with it countless ages back, and is perennial as the river itself. This immense poison-tree of Life, with its leaves of illusion, blossoms of delirium, apples of destruction, surely cannot be made wholesome and sweet by anything we may do to the branchlets and twigs on which, poor insects, we find ourselves crawling, or to the leaves and fruit on which we must fain feed; for the venom is drawn up in the sap by the taproots plunged in abysmal depths of the past. This toppling and sinking house wherein we dwell cannot be firmly re-established, save by re-establishing from its lowest foundation upwards.
  • My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires I should not have know what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death - complete annihilation.
  • I could give no reasonable meaning to any single action or to my whole life. I was only surprised that I could have avoided understanding this from the very beginning - it has been so long known to all. Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort? ... How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.
  • There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes a twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them. So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the unescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. and this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all. The deception of the joys of life which formerly allayed my terror of the dragon now no longer deceived me. No matter how often I may be told, "You cannot understand the meaning of life so do not think about it, but live," I can no longer do it: I have already done it too long. I cannot now help seeing day and night going round and bringing me to death. That is all I see, for that alone is true. All else is false.
  • Sakya Muni, a young, happy prince, from whom the existence of sickness, old age, and death had been hidden, went out to drive and saw a terrible old man, toothless and slobbering. The prince, from whom till then old age had been concealed, was amazed, and asked his driver what it was, and how that man had come to such a wretched and disgusting condition, and when he learnt that this was the common fate of all men, that the same thing inevitably awaited him - the young prince - he could not continue his drive, but gave orders to go home, that he might consider this fact. So he shut himself up alone and considered it. And he probably devised some consolation for himself, for he subsequently again went out to drive, feeling merry and happy. But this time he saw a sick man. He saw an emaciated, livid, trembling man with dim eyes. The prince, from whom sickness had been concealed, stopped and asked what this was. And when he learnt that this was sickness, to which all men are liable, and that he himself - a healthy and happy prince - might himself fall ill tomorrow, he again was in no mood to enjoy himself but gave orders to drive home, and again sought some solace, and probably found it, for he drove out a third time for pleasure. But this third time he saw another new sight: he saw men carrying something. 'What is that?' 'A dead man.' 'What does *dead* mean?' asked the prince. He was told that to become dead means to become like that man. The prince approached the corpse, uncovered it, and looked at it. 'What will happen to him now?' asked the prince. He was told that the corpse would be buried in the ground. 'Why?' 'Because he will certainly not return to life, and will only produce a stench and worms.' 'And is that the fate of all men? Will the same thing happen to me? Will they bury me, and shall I cause a stench and be eaten by worms?' 'Yes.' 'Home! I shall not drive out for pleasure, and never will so drive out again!' And Sakya Muni could find no consolation in life, and decided that life is the greatest of evils; and he devoted all the strength of his soul to free himself from it, and to free others; and to do this so that, even after death, life shall not be renewed any more but be completely destroyed at its very roots. So speaks all the wisdom of India.
  • "What is it all about?" Mitja (in Brothers Karamazov) felt that though his question may be absurd and senseless, yet he had to ask just that, and he had to ask it in just that way. Socrates claimed that an unexamined life is not worthy of man. And Aristotle saw Man's "proper" goal and "proper" limit in the right exercise of those faculties which are uniquely human. It is commonplace that men, unlike other living organisms, are not equipped with built-in mechanisms for automatic maintenance of their existence. Man would perish immediately if he were to respond to his environment exclusively in terms of unlearned biologically inherited forms of behaviour. In order to survive at all, the human being must discover how various things around him and in him operate. And the place he occupies in the present scheme of organic creation is the consequence of having learned how to exploit his intellectual capacities for such discoveries. Hence, more human than any other human endeavour is the attempt at a total view of Man's function— or malfunction—in the Universe, his possible place and importance in the widest conceivable cosmic scheme. In other words it is the attempt to answer, or at least articulate whatever questions are entailed in the dying groan of ontological despair: what is it all about? This may well prove biologically harmful or even fatal to Man. Intellectual honesty and Man's high spiritual demands for order and meaning, may drive Man to the deepest antipathy to life and necessitate, as one existentialist chooses to express it: "a no to this wild, banal, grotesque and loathsome carnival in the world’s graveyard."
  • We are thrown into an absurdly indifferent world of sticks and stones and stars and emptiness. Our "situation" is that of a man who falls out of the Empire State Building. Any attempt at "justifying" our brief, accelerating fall, the inconceivably short interlude between our breath-taking realization of our "situation" and our inexorable total destruction, is bound to be equally ludicrous; i.e., whether we choose to say: (a) "This is actually quite comfortable as long as it lasts, let us make the best of it," or (b) "Let us at least do something useful while we can," and we start counting the windows on the building. In any event, both attitudes presuppose an ability to divert ourselves from realizing our desperate "situation," to abstract, as it were, every single moment of the “fall” out of its irreparable totality, to cut our lives up into small portions with petty, short time-span goals.
  • With open, unsuspecting enthusiasm do the prelatics devote themselves to their undisputably commendable mission一to save their fellow men from such pernicious views of life that cause "ontological uncertainty" and "existential despair (frustration, vacuum)” by providing them with an impregnable metaphysical armour. The fact that a patient is classified as mentally or emotionally sick prevents the psychotherapist from enquiring into the possibility of whether, or to what extent, his patient may be cognitively right. It is perfectly possible that a person with "existential frustration," "ontological despair" or simply "sub-clinical depression" may, because of his abnormal condition, be in a better position to look through the camouflage of life that still is deceiving the "healthy" psychotherapists.
  • Were (say) Frankl to attempt to cure (say) Zapffe from his "existential frustration," "ontological despair" or "metaphysic-melancholic clairvoyance," the chances are that Zapffe (rather than "cured") would be baffled by Frankl’s sophomoric philosophizing. "You may be psychologically healthier than I," Zapffe would gladly admit, "but I must insist that I am a better philosopher. A lifelong search for a meaning of life in general, and of my life in particular, has led me— reluctantly, but with cataclysmic consistency and sleepwalker’s certainty—to realize that it’s all fantasy and delusions, divinely subsidized to put us at peace with our ‘situation.’ You are certainly right that psycho-pathological explanations of my biosophical pessimism would be totally irrelevant; but I also fail to see what you can possibly accomplish with your naive, maladroit metaphysics, behind which—if you will permit me to speak your language for once—I see but the profoundest, most fundamental trauma, and that great universal repression which prevents all fatal insight into man and his ‘cosmic conditions,’ the mysterious, grotesquely absurd origin and genesis of body and mind, their inalienable interests, and their final and complete obliteration, the return of the synthesis to the absolute zero.” The biosophist is fully aware of the many marvellous metaphysics offering "peace in heart," "reconciliation with the world" and "atonement with the almighty," or the like, to anyone who is willing to join this or that suificating sect, and replace intellectually honest experience with fictitious world views. The spiritual vacuum is often so painful that if the fiction is sufficiently permanent, it does not seem to matter much if it should turn out not to be so terribly pleasant
  • Psychologists are themselves uncertain as to where the line should be drawn between “normality” and “abnormality”. Similarly controversial is mental "disorder." This does not imply that there are no obvious cases where "cure" or "treatment" is clearly suggested. If a student has difficulties in getting to the university because of fear of stepping on cracks in the pavement, this is not a problem to be taken seriously on the cognitive level; in other words, it doesn’t raise the problem: "Is it really dangerous to step on cracks in the pavement?" It is quite a different story if the student has "working inhibitions," because he has struck up against the stark problem of death and annihilation. His stomach is clawed to shreds, his breathing throttled by the anguish of nothingness, the dread of being no more. His behavior, his feelings and emotions may deviate so far from what is presently considered customary that there is no question of their abnormality, in at least one possible sense of "abnormality." But the reasons for his "deviation" may not be troubles in adjusting to narrow "social" aspects of his environment, as in the case with our first student, but caused by an unusual awakening to a clear and penetrating awareness of a vast "cosmic" environment to which there is no adjustment possible.


  • Why did nature not ordain that one animal should not live by the death of another? Nature, being inconstant and taking pleasure in creating and making constantly new lives and forms, because she knows that her terrestrial materials become thereby augmented, is more ready and more swift in her creating, than time in his destruction; and so she has ordained that many animals shall be food for others. Nay, this not satisfying her desire, to the same end she frequently sends forth certain poisonous and pestilential vapours upon the vast increase and congregation of animals; and most of all upon men, who increase vastly because other animals do not feed upon them; and, the causes being removed, the effects would not follow. This earth therefore seeks to lose its life, desiring only continual reproduction; and as, by the argument you bring forward and demonstrate, like effects always follow like causes, animals are the image of the world.
  • A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself; but still I loved life. This ridiculous foible is perhaps one of our most fatal characteristics; for is there anything more absurd than to wish to carry continually a burden which one can always throw down? to detest existence and yet to cling to one's existence? in brief, to caress the serpent which devours us, till he has eaten our very heart?
  • Life has so few charms!
    And yet we desire it.
    No more pleasure, no more power,
    in the horrors of death.
    A dead lion is not worth
    a midge that breathes.
    O unfortunate mortal!
    Whether your soul is enjoying
    the moment given to you,
    or whether death is ending it,
    both are torture.
    It is better not to have been born.
  • A caliph once, when his last hour had come,
    This prayer addressed to him he reverenced:
    "To thee, sole and all-powerful king, I bear
    What thou dost lack in thy immensity—
    Evil and ignorance, distress and sin."
    He might have added one thing further—hope.
  • Happiness is but a dream, and only pain is real. I have thought so for eighty-four years, and I know of no better plan than to resign myself to the inevitable, and reflect that flies were born to be devoured by spiders, and man to be consumed by care.


  • Thus, brought before the tribunal of ethics, the cosmos stands condemned. The conscience of man must revolt against the gross immorality of nature.
    • George C. Williams, "Huxleys Evolution and Ethics in Sociobiological Perspective", Zygon, Vol. 23, Iss. 4 (1988)


  • But it had come to seem that there was no distinguishing between pain of the spirit and pain of the flesh. What was the difference between humiliation and a swollen prostate? Between the pangs of sorrow and pneumonia? Senility was a proper ailment of both the spirit and the flesh, and the fact that senility was an incurable disease meant that existence was an incurable disease. It was a disease unrelated to existentialist theories, the flesh itself being the disease, latent death. If the cause of decay was illness, then the fundamental cause of that, the flesh, was illness too. The essence of the flesh was decay. It had its spot in time to give evidence of destruction and decay. Why did people first become aware of that fact only as old age came on? Why, when it buzzed faintly past the ear in the brief noontide of the flesh, did they note it only to forget it? Why did the healthy young athlete, in the shower after his exertions, watching the drops of water hit his shining flesh like hail, not see that the high tide of life itself was the cruelest of ills, a dark, amber-colored lump?
    • Mishima Yukio, The Decay of the Angel (1971)


  • One night in long bygone times, man awoke and saw himself.
    He saw that he was naked under cosmos, homeless in his own body. All things dissolved before his testing thought, wonder above wonder, horror above horror unfolded in his mind.
    Then woman too awoke and said it was time to go and slay. And he fetched his bow and arrow, a fruit of the marriage of spirit and hand, and went outside beneath the stars. But as the beasts arrived at their waterholes where he expected them of habit, he felt no more the tiger’s bound in his blood, but a great psalm about the brotherhood of suffering between everything alive.
    That day he did not return with prey, and when they found him by the next new moon, he was sitting dead by the waterhole.
  • When a human being takes his life in depression, this is a natural death of spiritual causes. The modern barbarity of 'saving' the suicidal is based on a hair-raising misapprehension of the nature of existence.

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